[Written by James Taylor (he/him)]
Content Warning: Discussions of class
Late in March, we were cursed with a double blow of bizarreness. With lockdown imposed, Madonna posted an offbeat video of her pondering the ‘equalizing’ qualities of COVID-19 from a bathtub filled with rose petals and what could have been semi-skimmed milk. “It’s the great equalizer”, she mused, “and what’s terrible about it is what’s great about it”. As far as celebrity Corona-ignorance goes, this was by far the most striking example; a pampered millionaire languishing in luxury contesting that the virus is indiscriminate. Forget the slaughter of Imagine – this was a moment symbolic of the class privilege that has permeated the response to the pandemic thus far.
And Madonna, unsurprisingly, couldn’t be more wrong. All bodies are susceptible to the virus, but the economic reality that the body finds itself in drastically changes how you get it and how it responds. It isn’t just the gap between private or state healthcare, although this is a factor – your class directly dictates how likely you are to be exposed to the virus. In March, when society pulled its shutters down and the majority worked from home, it was the ‘essential workers’ who were continually subjected to the pandemic – the bus drivers, shop workers, nurses, delivery drivers – the working classes. The jobs most essential to the running of society are some of the lowest paid and most unfairly vilified, but we already knew this. In the time of Corona, the more economic capital you have, the safer you are.
What was most disingenuous was the performativity of gratitude; clapping for a few minutes weekly or TV adverts thanking essential workers while flogging half price products, as if this would change anything about the working-class experience. Hundreds continued to die without adequate PPE or safety procedures. This is the legacy of a Conservative government who agreed pay rises for NHS doctors but not nurses or other workers; especially not the most economically disadvantaged. It is also the government whose chief advisor spectacularly broke the rules and got spectacularly let off the hook. It was myopic in every way, not least the car journey. It illustrated the privileged ‘one rule for us, another for you’ mentality that broke trust in lockdowns since.
A study from the University of Warwick’s Institute of Employment Research found that it was working class women who were most likely to be adversely affected by the virus – most likely to lose their jobs entirely, to be unable to work from home and to work in jobs where they were exposed to COVID-19. A further study from the Sutton Trust illustrated this inequality extended to education – teachers in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to say their pupils were handing in poorer quality work than usual in lockdown. Again, in the poorest areas, 15% of teachers report that more than a third of their pupils do not have proper access to an electronic device for learning compared to only 2% for the more affluent. These statistical figures give a rough idea, but numbers can only go so far to illustrate the misery wrought on those most deprived; parents who can’t provide for children, who can’t engage in learning – formulating an economic cycle which will take years to overcome.
It might be easy for some to argue that these were always the inevitable consequences, and possibly they were, but if lockdown has done anything it has exposed and exacerbated the gap between classes that has been festering. Isolation isn’t and wasn’t the same for everyone: to every 4-bedroom detached home in the suburbs filled with the smell of banana bread, there is a tiny flat in the cold city – one person’s garden is another’s window box. The rules have the arrogance to pretend everyone has the same space, capital, and facilities, and it is no wonder rules increasingly get broken when they are impossible to maintain for large swathes of our society. This isn’t even to speak about the effects on mental health. I myself am from a working-class family, and the discourse surrounding isolation – silly things to keep occupied, isolation box sets, How to Avoid Back Pain when Working from Home – comes in stark contrast to our family’s experience; my mother a key worker in a public facing job. The prospect of catching the virus was very real, for others it was not.
As the government begins to go into lockdown again, we need to have a better understanding of the working-class experience and know how to protect everyone adequately. We need to see class disparities, not ignore them. And so, Madonna, instead of spouting ill-advised pathological philosophies from your tacky en-suite (it really had to be said), perhaps this time, recognize that this pandemic has fractured bodies and sorted them in class, not democratized them. Class privilege is never in Vogue.
Carrying the work burden of the Covid-19 pandemic: working class women in the UK: Employment and Mental Health – Research paper from University of Warwick Employment Research Institute, University of Nottingham, and the UK Women’s Budget Group: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/news/working-class-women-worst-affected-lockdown-spring
COVID-19 Impacts: School Shutdowns: Research paper from The Sutton Trust: https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/covid-19-and-social-mobility-impact-brief/